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The Day of the Beast
by Zane Grey
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"To ask you to marry us," answered Mel.

"To marry you?... Is this the soldier who wronged you?"

"No. This is Daren Lane.... He wants to marry me to give my boy a name.... Somehow he finally made me consent."

"Well, well, here is a story. Come, take off this snowy cloak and get nearer the fire. Your hands are like ice." His voice was very calm and kind. It soothed Lane's strained nerves. With what eagerness did he scrutinize the old minister's face. He knew the penetrating eye, the lofty brow and white hair, the serious lined face, sad in a noble austerity. But the lips were kind with that softness and sweetness which comes from gentle words and frequent smiles. Lane's aroused antagonism vanished in the old man's presence.

"Doctor Wallace," went on Mel. "We have been to several ministers, and to Mr. Hartley, the magistrate. All refused to marry us. So I came to my old friend. You've known me all my life. Daren has at last convinced me—broke down my resistance. So—I ask—will you marry us?"

Doctor Wallace was silent for many moments while he gazed into the fire and stroked her hand. Suddenly a smile broke over his fine face.

"You say you asked Hartley to marry you?"

"Yes, we went to him. It was a reckless thing to do. I'm sorry."

"To say the least, it was original." The old minister seemed to have difficulty in restraining a laugh. Then for a moment he pondered.

"My friends, I am very old," he said at length, "but you have taught me something. I will marry you."

It was a strange marriage. Behind Mel and Daren stood the red-faced, grinning driver, his coarse long coat covered with snow, and the simpering housemaid, respectful, yet glorifying in her share in this midnight romance. The old minister with his striking face and white hair, gravely turned the leaves of his book. No bridegroom ever wore such a stern, haggard countenance. The bride's face might have been a happier one, but it could not have been more beautiful.

Doctor Wallace's voice was low and grave; it quavered here and there in passages. Lane's was hardly audible. Mel's rang deep and full.

The witnesses signed their names; husband and wife wrote theirs; the minister filled out the license, and the ceremony was over.

Then Doctor Wallace took a hand of each.

"Mel and Daren," he said. "No human can read the secret ways of God. But it seems there is divinity in you both. You have been sacrificed to the war. You are builders, not destroyers. You are Christians, not pagans. You have a vision limned against the mystery of the future. Mammon seems now to rule. Civilization rocks on its foundations. But the world will go on growing better. Peace on earth, good will to men! That is the ultimate. It was Christ's teaching.... You two give me greater faith.... Go now and face the world with heads erect—whatever you do, Mel—and however long you live, Daren. Who can tell what will happen? But time proves all things, and the blindness of people does not last forever.... You both belong to the Kingdom of God."

But few words were spoken by Lane or Mel on the ride home. Mel seemed lost in a trance. She had one hand slipped under Lane's arm, the other clasped over it. As for Lane, he had overestimated his strength. A deadly numbness attacked his nerves, and he had almost lost the sense of touch. When they arrived at Mel's home the snow-storm had abated somewhat, and the lighted windows of the cottage shone brightly.

Lane helped Mel wade through the deep snow, or he pretended to help her, for in reality he needed her support more than she needed his. They entered the warm little parlor. Some one had replenished the fire. The clock pointed to the hour of one. Lane laid the marriage certificate on the open book Mel had been reading. Mel threw off hat, coat, overshoes and gloves. Her hair was wet with melted snow.

"Now, Daren Lane," she said softly. "Now that you have made me your wife—!"

Up until then Lane had been master of the situation. He had thought no farther than this moment. And now he weakened. Was this beautiful woman, with head uplifted and eyes full of fire, the Mel Iden of his school days? Now that he had made her his wife—.

"Mel, there's no now for me," he replied, with a sad finality. "From this moment, I'll live in the past. I have no future.... Thank God, you let me do what I could. I'll try to come again soon. But I must go now. I'm afraid—I overtaxed my strength."

"Oh, you look so—so," she faltered. "Stay, Daren—and let me nurse you.... We have a little spare room, warm, cozy. I'll wait on you, Daren. Oh, it would mean so much to me—now I am your wife."

The look of her, the tones of her voice, made him weak. Then he thought of his cold, sordid lodgings, and he realized that one more moment here alone with Mel Iden would make him a coward in his own eyes. He thanked her, and told her how impossible it was for him to stay, and bidding her good night he reeled out into the white gloom. At the gate he was already tired; at the bridge he needed rest. Once more, then, he heard the imagined voices of the waters calling to him.



CHAPTER XVIII

Seldom did Blair Maynard ever trust himself any more in the presence of his mother's guests. Since Mrs. Maynard had announced the engagement of his sister Margaret to Richard Swann, she had changed remarkably. Blair did not love her any the better for the change. All his life, as long as he could remember, he and Margaret had hated pretension, and the littleness of living beyond their means. But now, with this one coup d'etat, his mother had regained her position as the leader of Middleville society. Haughty, proud, forever absorbed in the material side of everything, she moved in a self-created atmosphere Blair could not abide. He went hungry many a time rather than sit at table with guests such as Mrs. Maynard delighted to honor.

Blair and Margaret had become estranged, and Blair spent most of his time alone, reading or dreaming, but mostly sleeping. He knew he grew weaker every day and his weakness appeared to induce slumber.

On New Year's day, after dinner, he fell asleep in a big chair, across the hall from the drawing-room. And when he awoke the drawing-room was full of people making New Year's calls. If there was anything Blair hated it was to thump on his crutch past curious, cold-eyed persons. So he remained where he was, hoping not to be seen. But unfortunately for him, he had exceedingly keen ears and exceedingly sensitive feelings.

Some of the guests he knew very well without having to see them. The Swanns, and Fanchon Smith, with her brother and mother, Gerald Hartley and his bride, Helen Wrapp, and a number of others prominent as Middleville's elect were recognizable by their voices. While he was sitting there, trying not to hear what he could not help hearing, a number more arrived.

They talked. It gradually dawned on Blair that some gossip was rife anent a midnight marriage between his friend Daren Lane and Mel Iden. Blair was deeply shocked. Then his emotions, never calm, grew poignant. He listened. What he heard spoken of Daren and Mel made his blood boil. Sweet voices, low-pitched, well-modulated, with the intonation of culture, made witty and scarcely veiled remarks of a suggestiveness that gave rise to laughter. Voices of men, bland, blase, deriding Daren Lane! Blair listened, and slowly his passion mounted to a white heat. And then it seemed, fate fully, in a lull of the conversation, some one remarked graciously to Mrs. Maynard that it was a pity that Blair had lost a leg in the war.

Blair thumped up on his crutch, and thumped across the hall to confront this assembly.

"Ladies and gentlemen, pray pardon me," he said, in his high-pitched tenor, cold now, and under perfect control. "I could not help hearing your conversation. And I cannot help illuminating your minds. It seems exceedingly strange to me that people of intelligence should make the blunders they do. So strange that in the future I intend to take such as you have made as nothing but the plain cold fact of perversion of human nature! Daren Lane is so far above your comprehension that it seems useless to defend him. I have never done it before. He would not thank me. But this once I will speak.... In our group of service men—so few of whom came home—he was a hero. We all loved him. And for soldiers at war that tribute is the greatest. If there was a dirty job to be done, Daren Lane volunteered for it. If there was a comrade to be helped, Daren Lane was the first to see it. He never thought of himself. The dregs of war did not engulf him as they did so many of us. He was true to his ideal. He would have been advanced for honors many a time but for the enmity of our captain. He won the Croix de Guerre by as splendid a feat as I saw during the war.... Thank God, we had some officers who treated us like men—who were men themselves. But for the majority we common soldiers were merely beasts of burden, dogs to drive. This captain of whom I speak was a padded shape—shirker from the front line—a parader of his uniform before women. And he is that to-day—a chaser of women—girls—girls of fifteen.... Yet he has the adulation of Middleville while Daren Lane is an outcast.... My God, is there no justice? At home here Daren Lane has not done one thing that was not right. Some of the gossip about him is as false as hell. He has tried to do noble things. If he married Mel Iden, as you say, it was in some exalted mood to help her, or to give his name to her poor little nameless boy."

Blair paused a moment in a deliberate speech that toward the end had grown breathless. The faces before him seemed swaying in a mist.

"As for myself," he continued in passionate hurry, "I did not lose my leg!... I sacrificed it. I gave my career, my youth, my health, my body—and I will soon have given my life—for my country and my people. I was proud to do it. Never for a moment have I regretted it.... What I lost—Ah! what I lost was respect for"—Blair choked—"for the institution that had deluded me. What I lost was not my leg but my faith in God, in my country, in the gratitude of men left at home, in the honor of women."

Friday, the tenth of January, dawned cold, dark, dreary, and all day a dull clouded sky promised rain or snow. From a bride's point of view it was not a propitious day for a wedding. A half hour before five o'clock a stream of carriages began to flow toward St. Marks and promptly at five the door of the church shut upon a large and fashionable assembly.

The swelling music of the wedding march pealed out. The bridal party filed into the church. The organ peals hushed. The resonant voice of a minister, with sing-song solemnity, began the marriage service.

Margaret Maynard knew she stood there in the flesh, yet the shimmering white satin, the flowing veil, covered some one who was a stranger to her.

And this other, this strange being who dominated her movements, stood passively and willingly by, while her despairing and truer self saw the shame and truth. She was a lie. The guests, friends, attendants, bridesmaids, the minister, the father, mother, groom—all were lies. They expressed nothing of their true feelings.

The unwelcomed curious, who had crowded into the back of the church, were the sincerest, for in their eyes, covetousness was openly unveiled. The guests and friends wore the conventional shallow smiles of guests and friends. They whispered to one another—a beautiful wedding—a gorgeous gown—a perfect bride—a handsome groom; and exclaimed in their hearts: How sad the father! How lofty, proud, exultant the mother! How like her to move heaven and earth to make this marriage! The attendants posed awkwardly, a personification of the uselessness of their situation, and they pitied the bride while they envied him for whose friendship they stood. The bridesmaids graced their position and gloried in it, and serenely smiled, and thought that to be launched in life in such dazzling manner might be compensation for the loss of much. He of the flowing robe, of the saintly expression, of the trained earnestness, the minister who had power to unite these lives, saw nothing behind that white veil, saw only his fashionable audience, while his resonant voice rolled down the aisles of the church: "Who gives this woman to be wedded to this man?" The father answered and straightway the years rolled back to his youth, to hope, to himself as he stood at the altar with love and trust, and then again to the present, to the failure of health and love and life, to the unalterable destiny accorded him, to the one shame of an honest if unsuccessful life—the countenancing of this marriage. The worldly mother had, for once, a full and swelling heart. For her this was the crowning moment. In one sense this fashionable crowd had been pitted against her and she had won. What to her had been the pleading of a daughter, the importunity of a father, the reasoning of a few old-fashioned friends? The groom, who represented so much and so little in this ceremony, had entered the church with head held high, had faced his bride with gratified smile and the altar with serene unconsciousness.

Margaret Maynard saw all this; saw even the bride, with her splendidly regular loveliness; and then, out of heaven, it seemed there thundered an awful command, rolling the dream away, striking terror to her heart.

"If any man can show just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace!"

One long, silent, terrible moment! Would not an angel appear, with flaming sword, to smite her dead? But the sing-song voice went on, like flowing silk.

The last guest at Mrs. Maynard's reception had gone, reluctantly, out into the snow, and the hostess sat in her drawing-room, amid the ruins of flowers and palms. She was alone with her triumph. Mr. Maynard and Mr. Swann were smoking in the library. Owing to the storm and delicate health of the bride the wedding journey had been postponed.

Margaret was left alone, at length, in the little blue-and-white room which had known her as a child and maiden, where she now sat as wife. For weeks past she had been emotionless. To-night, with that trenchant command, unanswered except in her heart, a spasm of pain had broken the serenity of her calm, and had left her quivering.

"It is done," she whispered.

The endless stream of congratulations, meaningless and abhorrent to her, the elaborate refreshments, the warm embraces of old friends had greatly fatigued her. But she could not rest. She paced the little room; she passed the beautiful white bridal finery, so neatly folded by the bridesmaids, and she averted her eyes. She seemed not to hate her mother, nor love her father; she had no interest in her husband. She was slipping back again into that creature apart from her real self.

The house became very quiet; the snow brushed softly against the windows.

A step in the hall made Margaret pause like a listening deer; a tap sounded lightly on her door; a voice awoke her at last to life and to torture.

"Margaret, may I come in?"

It was Swann's voice, a little softer than usual, with a subtle eagerness.

"No" answered Margaret, involuntarily.

"I beg your pardon. I'll wait." Swann's footsteps died away in the direction of the library.

The spring of a panther was in Margaret's action as she began to repace the room. All her blood quickened to the thought suggested by her husband's soft voice. In the mirror she saw a crimsoned face and shamed eyes from which she turned away.

All the pain and repression, the fight and bitter resignation and trained indifference of the past months were as if they had never been. This was her hour of real agony; now was the time to pay the price. Pride, honor, love never smothered, reserve rooted in the very core of a sensitive woman's heart, availed nothing. Once again catching sight of her reflection in the mirror she stopped before it, and crossing her hands on her heaving breast, she regarded herself with scorn. She was false to her love, she was false to herself, false to the man to whom she had sold herself. "Oh! Why did I yield!" she cried. She was a coward; she belonged to the luxurious class that would suffer anything rather than lose position. Fallen had she as low as any of them; gold had been the price of her soul. To keep her position she must marry one man when she loved another. She cried out in her wretchedness; she felt in her whole being a bitter humiliation; she felt stir in her a terrible tumult.

Margaret wondered how many thousands of girls had been similarly placed, and pitied them. She thought of the atmosphere in which she lived, where it seemed to her every mother was possessed singularly and entirely of one aim, to marry her daughter as soon as possible to a man as rich as possible. Marrying well simply meant marrying money. Only a few days before her mother had come to her and said: "Mrs. Fisher called and she was telling me about her daughter Alice. It seems Alice is growing very pretty and very popular. She said she was afraid Alice had taken, a liking to that Brandeth fellow, who's only a clerk. So Mrs. Fisher intends taking Alice to the seashore this summer, to an exclusive resort, of course, but one where there will be excitement and plenty of young gentlemen."

At the remembrance Margaret gave a little contemptuous laugh. A year ago she would not have divined the real purport of her mother's words. How easy that was now! Mrs. Fisher had decided that as Alice was eighteen it was time a suitable husband was found for her. Poor Alice! Balls, parties, receptions there would be, and trips to the seashore and all the other society manoeuvers, made ostensibly to introduce Alice to the world; but if the truth were told in cold blood all this was simply a parading of the girl before a number of rich and marriageable men. Poor Harry Brandeth!

She recalled many marriages of friends and acquaintances. With strange intensity of purpose she brought each one to mind, and thought separately and earnestly over her. What melancholy facts this exercise revealed! She could not recall one girl who was happy, perfectly happy, unless it was Jane Silvey who ran off with and married a telegraph operator. Jane was still bright-eyed and fresh, happy no doubt in her little house with her work and her baby, even though her people passed her by as if she were a stranger. Then Margaret remembered with a little shock there was another friend, a bride who had been found on her wedding night wandering in the fields. There had been some talk, quickly hushed, of a drunken husband, but it had never definitely transpired what had made her run out into the dark night. Margaret recollected the time she had seen this girl's husband, when he was drunk, beat his dog brutally. Then Margaret reflected on the gossip she never wanted to hear, yet could not avoid hearing, over her mother's tea-table; on the intimations and implications. Many things she would not otherwise have thought of again, but they now recurred and added their significance to her awakening mind. She was not keen nor analytical; she possessed only an ordinary intelligence; she could not trace her way through a labyrinth of perplexing problems; still, suffering had opened her eyes and she saw something terribly wrong in her mother's world.

Once more she stopped pacing her room, for a step in the hall arrested her, and made her stand quivering, as if under the lash.

"I won't!" she breathed intensely. Swiftly and lightly she sped across her room, opened a door leading to the balcony and went out, closing the door behind her softly.

Mr. Maynard sat before the library fire with a neglected cigar between his fingers. The events of the day had stirred him deeply. The cold shock he had felt when he touched his daughter's cheek in the accustomed good-night kiss remained with him, still chilled his lips. For an hour he sat there motionless, with his eyes fixed on the dying fire, and in his mind hope, doubt and remorse strangely mingled. Hope persuaded him that Margaret was only a girl, still sentimental and unpoised. Unquestionably she had made a good marriage. Her girlish notions about romance and love must give way to sane acceptance of real human life. After all money meant a great deal. She would come around to a sensible view, and get that strange look out of her eyes, that strained blighted look which hurt him. Then he writhed in his self-contempt; doubt routed all his hope, and remorse made him miserable.

A hurried step on the stairs aroused Mr. Maynard. Swann came running into the library. He was white; his sharp featured face wore a combination of expressions; alarm, incredulity, wonder were all visible there, but the most striking was mortification.

"Mr. Maynard, Margaret has left her room. I can't find her anywhere."

The father stared blankly at his son-in-law.

Swann repeated his statement.

"What!" All at once Mr. Maynard sank helplessly into his chair. In that moment certainty made him an old broken man.

"She's gone!" said Swann, in a shaken voice. "She has run off from me. I knew she would; I knew she'd do something. I've never been able to kiss her—only last night we quarreled about it. I tell you it's—"

"Pray do not get excited," interrupted Mr. Maynard, bracing up. "I'm sure you exaggerate. Tell me what you know."

"I went to her room an hour, two hours ago, and knocked. She was there but refused me admittance. She spoke sharply—as if—as if she was afraid. I went and knocked again long after. She didn't answer. I knocked again and again. Then I tried her door. It was not locked. I opened it. She was not in the room. I waited, but she didn't come. I—I am afraid something is—wrong."

"She might be with her mother," faltered Mr. Maynard.

"No, I'm sure not," asserted Swann. "Not to-night of all nights. Margaret has grown—somewhat cold toward her mother. Besides Mrs. Maynard retired hours ago."

The father and the husband stole noiselessly up the stairs and entered Margaret's room. The light was turned on full. The room was somewhat disordered; bridal finery lay littered about; a rug was crumpled; a wicker basket overturned. The father's instinct was true. His first move was to open the door leading out upon the balcony. In the thin snow drifted upon this porch were the imprints of little feet.

Something gleamed pale blue in the light of the open door. Mr. Maynard picked it up, and with a sigh that was a groan held it out to Swann. It was a blue satin slipper.

"Heavens!" exclaimed Swann. "She's run out in the snow—she might as well be barefooted."

"S-sh-h!" warned Mr. Maynard. Unhappy and excited as he was he did not forget Mrs. Maynard. "Let us not alarm any one."

"There! See, her footsteps down the stairs," whispered Swann. "I can see them clear to the ground."

"You stay here, Swann, so in case Mrs. Maynard or the servants awake you can prevent alarm. We must think of that. I'll bring her back."

Mr. Maynard descended the narrow stairway to the lower porch and went out into the yard. The storm had ceased. A few inches of snow had fallen and in places was deeper in drifts. The moon was out and shone down on a white world. It was cold and quiet. When Mr. Maynard had trailed the footsteps across his wide lawn and saw them lead out into the street toward the park, he fell against a tree, unable, for a moment, to command himself. Hope he had none left, nor a doubt. On the other side of the park, hardly a quarter of a mile away, was the river. Margaret had gone straight toward it.

Outside in the middle of the street he found her other slipper. She had not even stockings on now; he could tell by the impressions of her feet in the snow. He remembered quite mournfully how small Margaret's feet were, how perfectly shaped. He hurried into the park, but was careful to obliterate every vestige of her trail by walking in the soft snow directly over her footprints. A hope that she might have fainted before she could carry out her determination arose in him and gave him strength. He kept on. Her trail led straight across the park, in the short cut she had learned and run over hundreds of times when a little girl. It was hastening her now to her death.

At first her footsteps were clear-cut, distinct and wide apart. Soon they began to show evidences of weariness; the stride shortened; the imprints dragged. Here a great crushing in a snow drift showed where she had fallen.

Mr. Maynard's hope revived; he redoubled his efforts. She could not be far. How she dragged along! Then with a leap of his heart, and a sob of thankfulness he found her, with disheveled hair, and face white as the snow where it rested, sad and still in the moonlight.



CHAPTER XIX

Middleville was noted for its severe winters, but this year the zero weather held off until late in January. Lane was peculiarly susceptible to the cold and he found himself facing a discomfort he knew he could not long endure. Every day he felt more and more that he should go to a warm and dry climate; and yet he could not determine to leave Middleville. Something held him.

The warmth of bright hotel lobbies and theatres and restaurants uptown was no longer available for Lane. His money had dwindled beyond the possibility of luxury, and besides he shrank now from meeting any one who knew him. His life was empty, dreary and comfortless.

One wintry afternoon Lane did not wander round as long as usual, for the reason that his endurance was lessening. He returned early to his new quarters, and in the dim hallway he passed a slight pale girl who looked at him. She seemed familiar, but Lane could not place her. Evidently she had a room in the building. Lane hated the big barn-like house, and especially the bare cold room where he had to seek rest. Of late he had not eaten any dinner. He usually remained in bed as long as he could, and made a midday meal answer all requirements. Appetite, like many other things, was failing him. This day he sat upon his bed, in the abstraction of the lonely and unhappy, until the cold forced him to get under the covers.

His weary eyelids had just closed when he was awakened. The confused sense of being torn from slumber gave way to a perception of a voice in the room next to his. It was a man's voice, rough with the huskiness Lane recognized as peculiar to drunkards. And the reply to it seemed to be a low-toned appeal from a woman.

"Playin' off sick, eh? You don't want to work. But you'll get me some money, girl, d'ye hear?"

A door slammed, rattling the thin partition between the two rooms, and heavy footsteps dragged in the hall and on the stairway.

Sleep refused to come back to Lane. As he lay there he was surprised at the many sounds he heard. The ramshackle old structure, which he had supposed almost vacant, was busy with life. Stealthy footfalls in the hallways passed and repassed; a piano drummed somewhere; a man's loud voice rang out, and a woman's laugh faint, hollow and far away, like the ghost of laughter, returned in echo. The musical clinking of glasses, the ring of a cash register, the rattling click of pool balls, came up from below.

Presently Lane remembered the nature of the place. It was a house of night. In daylight it was silent; its inmates were asleep. But as the darkness unfolded a cloak over it, all the hidden springs of its obscure humanity began to flow. Lying there with the woman's appeal haunting him and all those sounds in his ears he thought of their meaning. The drunkard with his lust for money; his moaning victim; the discordant piano; the man with the vacant laugh; the lost hope and youth in the woman's that echoed it; the stealing, slipping feet of those who must tread softly—all conveyed to Lane that he had awakened in another world, a world which shunned sunlight.

Toward morning he dozed off into a fitful sleep which lasted until ten o'clock when he arose and dressed. As he was about to go out a knock on the door of the room next to his recalled the incident of the night. He listened. Another knock followed, somewhat louder, but no response came from within.

"Say, you in there," cried a voice Lane recognized as the landlady's. She rattled the door-knob.

A girl's voice answered weakly: "Come in."

Lane heard the door open.

"I wants my room rent. I can't get a dollar out of your drunken father. Will you pay? It's four weeks overdue."

"I have no money."

"Then get out an' leave me the room." The landlady spoke angrily.

"I'm ill. I can't get up." The answer was faint.

Lane opened his door quickly, and confronted the broad person of the landlady.

"How much does the woman owe?" he asked, quietly.

"Ah-huh!" the exclamation was trenchant with meaning. "Twenty dollars, if it's anything to you."

"I'll pay it. I think I heard the woman say she was ill."

"She says she is."

"May I be of any assistance?"

"Ask her."

Lane glanced into the little room, a counterpart of his. But it was so dark he could see nothing distinctly.

"May I come in? Let me raise the blind. There, the sun is fine this morning. Now, may I not—-"

He looked down at a curly head and a sweet pretty face that he knew.

"I know you," he said, groping among past associations.

"I am Rose Clymer," she whispered, and a momentary color came into her wan cheeks.

"Rose Clymer! Bessy Bell's friend!"

"Yes, Mr. Lane. I'm not so surprised as you. I recognized you last night."

"Then it was you who passed me in the hall?"

"Yes."

"Well! And you're ill? What is the matter? Ah! Last night—it was your—your father—I heard?"

"Yes," she answered. "I've not been well since—for a long time, and I gave out last night."

"Here I am talking when I might be of some use," said Lane, and he hurried out of the room. The landlady had discreetly retired to the other end of the hall. He thrust some money into her hands.

"She seems pretty sick. Do all you can for her, be kind to her. I'll pay. I'm going for a doctor."

He telephoned for Doctor Bronson.

An hour later Lane, coming upstairs from his meal, met the physician at Rose's door. He looked strangely at Lane and shook his head.

"Daren, how is it I find you here in this place?"

"Beggars can't be choosers," answered Lane, with his old frank smile.

"Humph!" exclaimed the doctor, gruffly.

"How about the girl?" asked Lane.

"She's in bad shape," replied Bronson.... "Lane, are you aware of her condition?"

"Why, she's ill—that's all I know," replied Lane, slowly. "Rose didn't tell me what ailed her. I just found out she was here."

Doctor Bronson looked at Lane. "Too bad you didn't find out sooner. I'll call again to-day and see her.... And say, Daren, you look all in yourself."

"Never mind me, Doctor. It's mighty good of you to look after Rose. I know you've more patients than you can take care of. Rose has nothing and her father's a poor devil. But I'll pay you."

"Never mind about money," rejoined Bronson, turning to go.

Lane could learn little from Rose. Questions seemed to make her shrink, so Lane refrained from them and tried to cheer her. The landlady had taken a sudden liking to Lane which evinced itself in her change of attitude toward Rose, and she was communicative. She informed Lane that the girl had been there about two months; that her father had made her work till she dropped. Old Clymer had often brought men to the hotel to drink and gamble, and to the girl's credit she had avoided them.

For several days Doctor Bronson came twice daily to see Rose. He made little comment upon her condition, except to state that she had developed peritonitis, and he was not hopeful. Soon Rose took a turn for the worse. The doctor came to Lane's room and told him the girl would not have the strength to go through with her ordeal. Lane was so shocked he could not speak. Dr. Bronson's shoulders sagged a little, an unusual thing for him. "I'm sorry, Daren," he said. "I know you wanted to help the poor girl out of this. But too late. I can ease her pain, and that's all."

Strangely shaken and frightened Lane lay down in the dark. The partition between his room and Rose's might as well have been paper for all the sound it deadened. He could have escaped that, but he wanted to be near her.... And he listened to Rose's moans in the darkness. Lane shuddered there, helpless, suffering, realizing. Then the foreboding silence became more dreadful than any sound.... It was terrible for Lane. That strange cold knot in his breast, that coil of panic, seemed to spring and tear, quivering through all his body. What had he known of torture, of sacrifice, of divine selflessness? He understood now how the loved and guarded woman went down into the Valley of the Shadow for the sake of a man. Likewise, he knew the infinite tragedy of a ruined girl who lay in agony, gripped by relentless nature.

Lane was called into the hall by Mrs. O'Brien. She was weeping. Bronson met him at the door.

"She's dying," he whispered. "You'd better come in. I've 'phoned to Doctor Wallace."

Lane went in, almost blinded. The light seemed dim. Yet he saw Rose with a luminous glow radiating from her white face.

"I feel—so light," she said, with a wan smile.

Lane sat by the bed, but he could not speak. The moments dragged. He had a feeling of their slow but remorseless certainty.

Then there were soft steps outside—Mrs. O'Brien opened the door—and Doctor Wallace entered the room.

"My child," he gravely began, bending over her.

Rose's big eyes with their strained questioning gaze sought his face and Doctor Bronson's and Lane's.

"Rose—are you—in pain?"

"The burning's gone," she said.

"My child," began Doctor Wallace, again. "Your pain is almost over. Will you not pray with me?"

"No. I never was two-faced," replied Rose, with a weary shake of the tangled curls. "I won't show yellow now."

Lane turned away blindly. It was terrible to think of her dying bitter, unrepentant.

"Oh! if I could hope!" murmured Rose. "To see my mother!"

Then there were shuffling steps outside and voices. The door was opened by Mrs. O'Brien. Old Clymer crossed the threshold. He was sober, haggard, grieved. He had been told. No one spoke as he approached Rose's bedside.

"Lass—lass—" he began, brokenly.

Then he sought from the men confirmation of a fear borne by a glance into Rose's white still face. And silence answered him.

"Lass, if you're goin'—tell me—who was to blame?"

"No one—but myself—father," she replied.

"Tell me, who was to blame?" demanded Clymer, harshly.

Her pale lips curled a little bitterly, and suddenly, as a change seemed to come over her, they set that way. She looked up at Lane with a different light in her eyes. Then she turned her face to the wall.

Lane left the room, to pace up and down the hall outside. His thoughts seemed deadlocked. By and bye, Doctor Bronson came out with Doctor Wallace, who was evidently leaving.

"She is unconscious and dying," said Doctor Bronson to Lane, and then bade the minister good-bye and returned to the room.

"How strangely bitter she was!" exclaimed Doctor Wallace to Lane. "Yet she seemed such a frank honest girl. Her attitude was an acknowledgment of sin. But she did not believe it herself. She seemed to have a terrible resentment. Not against one man, or many persons, but perhaps life itself! She was beyond me. A modern girl—a pagan! But such a brave, loyal, generous little soul. What a pity! I find my religion at fault because it can accomplish nothing these days."



CHAPTER XX

Lane took Rose's death to heart as if she had been his sister or sweetheart. The exhaustion and exposure he was subjected to during these days dragged him farther down.

One bitter February day he took refuge in the railroad station. The old negro porter who had known Lane since he was a boy evidently read the truth of Lane's condition, for he contrived to lead him back into a corner of the irregular room. It was an obscure corner, rather hidden by a supporting pillar and the projecting end of a news counter. This seat was directly over the furnace in the cellar. Several pipes, too hot to touch, came up through the floor. It was the warmest place Lane had found, and he sat there for hours. He could see the people passing to and fro through the station, arriving and leaving on trains, without himself being seen. That afternoon was good for him, and he went back next day.

But before he could get to the coveted seat he was accosted by Blair Maynard. Lane winced under Blair's piercing gaze; and the haggard face of his friend renewed Lane's deadened pangs. Lane led Blair to the warm corner, and they sat down. It had been many weeks since they had seen each other. Blair talked in one uninterrupted flow for an hour, and so the life of the people Lane had given up was once again open to him. It was like the scoring of an old wound. Then Lane told what little there was to tell about himself. And the things he omitted Blair divined. After that they sat silent for a while.

"Of course you knew Mel's boy died," said Blair, presently.

"Oh—No!" exclaimed Lane.

"Hadn't you heard? I thought—of course you—.... Yes, he died some time ago. Croup or flu, I forget."

"Dead!" whispered Lane, and he leaned forward to cover his face with his hands. He had seemed so numb to feeling. But now a storm shook him.

"Dare, it's better for him—and Mel too," said Blair, with a hand going to his friend's shoulder. "That idea never occurred to me until day before yesterday when I ran into Mel. She looked—Oh, I can't tell you how. But I got that strange impression."

"Did—did she ask about me?" queried Lane, hoarsely, as he uncovered his face, and sat back.

"She certainly did," replied Blair, warmly. "And I lied like a trooper. I didn't know where you were or how you were, but I pretended you were O.K."

"And then—" asked Lane, breathlessly.

"She said, 'Tell Daren I must see him.' I promised and set out to find you. I was pretty lucky to run into you.... And now, old sport, let me get personal, will you?"

"Go as far as you like," replied Lane, in muffled voice.

"Well, I think Mel loves you," went on Blair, in hurried softness. "I always thought so—even when we were kids. And now I know it.... And Lord! Dare you just ought to see her now. She's lovely. And she's your wife."

"What if she is—both lovely—and my wife?" queried Lane, bitterly.

"If I were you I'd go to her. I'd sure let her take care of me.... Dare, the way you're living is horrible. I have a home, such as it is. My room is warm and clean, and I can stay in it. But you—Dare, it hurts me to see you—as you are——"

"No!" interrupted Lane, passionately. The temptation Blair suggested was not to be borne.

Lane met Blair the next afternoon at the station, and again on the next. That established a habit in which both found much comfort and some happiness. Thereafter they met every day at the same hour. Often for long they sat silent, each occupied with his own thoughts. Occasionally Blair would bring a package which contained food he had ransacked from the larder at home. Together they would fall upon it like two schoolboys. But what Lane was most grateful for was just Blair's presence.

It was distressing then, after these meetings had extended over a period of two weeks, to be confronted one afternoon by a new station agent who called Blair and Lane bums and ordered them out of the place.

Blair raised his crutch to knock the man down. But Lane intercepted it, and got his friend out of the station. It was late afternoon with the sun going down over the hill across the railroad yards. Blair stood a moment bare-headed, with the light on his handsome haggard face. How frail he seemed—too frail of body for the magnificent spirit so flashing in his eyes, so scathing on his bitter lips. Lane bade him good-bye and turned away, with a strange intimation that this was the last time he would ever see Blair alive.

Wretched and desperate, Lane bought drink and took it to his room with him. On that dark winter night he sat by the window of his room. Insensible now to the cold, to the wind moaning outside, to the snow whirling against the pane, he lived with phantoms. To and fro, to and fro glided the wraith-forms, vanishing and appearing. The soft rustling sound of the snow was the rustle of their movements. Across the gleam of light, streaking coldly through the pane, flickering fitfully on the wall, floated shadows and faces.

He did not know when he succumbed to drowsy weakness. But he awoke at daylight, lying on the floor, stiff with cold. Drink helped him to drag through that day. Then something happened to him, and time meant nothing. Night and day were the same. He did not eat. When he lay back upon his bed he became irrational, yet seemed to be conscious of it. When he sat up his senses slowly righted. But he preferred the spells of aberration. Sometimes he was possessed by hideous nightmares, out of which he awoke with the terror of a child. Then he would have to sit up in the dark, in a cold sweat, and wait, and wait, until he dared to lie back again.

In the daytime delusions grew upon him. One was that he was always hearing the strange voices of the river, and another that he was being pursued by an old woman clad in a flowing black mantle, with a hood on her head and a crooked staff in her hand. The voices and apparition came to him, now in his waking hours; they came suddenly without any prelude or warning. He explained them as odd fancies resulting from strong drink; they grew on him until his harsh laugh could not shake them off. He managed occasionally to drag himself out of the house. In the streets he felt this old black hag following him; but later she came to him in the lonely silence of his room. He never noticed her unless he glanced behind him, and he was powerless to resist that impulse. At length the dreary old woman, who seemed to grow more gaunt and ghostly every day, took the form in Lane's disordered fancy of the misfortune that war had put upon him.

Lane dreamed once that it was a gray winter afternoon; dark lowering clouds hung over the drab-colored hills, and a chill north wind scurried over the bare meadows, sending the dead leaves rustling over the heath and moaning through the leafless oaks. What a sad day it was, he thought, as he faced the biting wind: sad as was his life and a fitting one for the deed on which he had determined! Long since he had left the city and was on the country road. He ascended a steep hill. From its highest point he looked back toward the city he was leaving forever. Faint it lay in the distance, only a few of its white spires shining out dimly from the purple haze.

What was that dark shadow? Far down the winding road he discerned an object moving slowly up the hill. Closer he looked, and trembled. An old woman with flowing black robes was laboriously climbing the hill. Whirling, he placed his hand on his breast, firmly grasped something there, and then strode onward. Soon he glanced over his shoulder. Yes, there she came, hobbling over the crest, her bent form and long crooked staff clearly silhouetted against the gray background. She raised the long staff and pointed it at him.

Now it seemed the day was waning; deep shadows lay in the valleys, and night already enveloped the forest. Through rents in the broken clouds a few pale stars twinkled fitfully. Soon dark cloud curtains scurried across these spaces shutting out the light.

He plunged into the forest. His footsteps made no sound on the soft moss as he glided through wooded aisles and under giant trees. Once well into the deep woods, he turned to look behind him. He saw a shadow, blacker than the forest-gloom, stealthily slipping from tree to tree. He looked no more. For hours he traveled on and on, never stopping, never looking backward, never listening, intent only on placing a great distance between him and his pursuer.

He came upon a swamp where his feet sank in the soft earth, and through all the night, with tireless strength and fateful resolve, he toiled into this dreamy waste of woods and waters, until at length a huge black rock loomed up in his way. He ascended to its summit and looked beyond.

It seemed now that he had reached his destination. Wood spirits and phantoms of night would mourn over him, but they would keep his secret. He peered across a shining lake, and tried to pierce the gloom. No living thing moved before his vision. Silver rippling waves shimmered under that starlit sky; tall weird pines waved gently in the night breeze; slender cedars, resembling spectres, reared their heads toward the blue-black vault of heaven. He listened intently. There was a faint rustling of the few leaves left upon the oaks. The strange voices that had always haunted him, the murmuring of river waters, or whispering of maidens, or muttering of women were now clear.

Suddenly two white forms came gliding across the waters. The face of one was that of a young girl. Golden hair clustered round the face and over the fair brow. The lips smiled with mournful sweetness. The other form seemed instinct with life. The face was that of a living, breathing girl, soulful, passionate, her arms outstretched, her eyes shining with a strange hopeful light.

Down, down, down he fell and sank through chill depths, falling slowly, falling softly. The cool waters passed; he floated through misty, shadowy space. An infinitude of silence enclosed him. Then a dim and sullen roar of waters came to his ears, borne faintly, then stronger, on a breeze that was not of earth. Anguish and despair tinged that sodden wind. Weird and terrible came a cry. Steaming, boiling, burning, rumbling chaos—a fearful rushing sullen water! Then a flash of light like a falling star sped out of the dark clouds.

Lane found himself sitting up in bed, wet and shaking. The room was dark. Some one was pounding on the door.

"Hello, Lane, are you there?" called a man's deep voice.

"Yes. What's wanted?" answered Lane.

The door opened wide, impelled by a powerful arm. Light from the hallway streamed in over the burly form of a man in a heavy coat. He stood in the doorway evidently trying to see.

"Sick in bed, hey?" he queried, with gruff kind voice.

"I guess I am. Who're you?"

"I'm Joshua Iden and I've come to pack you out of here," he said.

"No!" protested Lane, faintly.

"Your wife is downstairs in a taxi waiting," went on his strange visitor.

"My wife!" whispered Lane.

"Yes. Mel Iden, my daughter. You've forgotten maybe, but she hasn't. She learned to-day from Doctor Bronson how ill you were. And so she's come to take you home."

Mel Iden! The name seemed a part of the past. This was only another dream, thought Lane, and slowly fell back upon his bed.

"Say, aren't you able to sit up?" queried this visitor Lane took for the spectre of a dream. He advanced into the room. He grasped Lane with firm hand. And then Lane realized this was no nightmare. He began to shake.

"Sit up?" he echoed, vaguely. "Sure I can.... You're Mel's father?"

"Yes," replied the other. "Come, get out of this.... Well, you haven't much dressing to do. And that's good.... Steady there."

As he rose, Lane would have fallen but for a quick move of Iden's.

"Only shoes and coat," said Lane, fumbling around. "They're somewhere."

"Here you are.... Let me help.... There. Have you an overcoat?"

"No," replied Lane.

"Well, there's a robe in the taxi. Come on now. I'll come back and pack your belongings."

He put an arm under Lane's and led him out into the hall and down the dim stairway to the street. Under the yellow light Lane saw a cab, toward which Iden urged him. Lane knew that he moved, but he seemed not to have any feeling in his legs. The cabman put a hand back to open the door.

"Mel, here he is," called out Iden, cheerfully.

Lane felt himself being pushed into the cab. His knees failed and he sank forward, even as he saw Mel's face.

"Daren!" she cried, and caught him.

Then all went black.



CHAPTER XXI

Lane's return to consciousness was an awakening into what seemed as unreal and unbelievable as any of his morbid dreams.

But he knew that his mind was clear. It did not take him a moment to realize from the feel of his body and the fact that he could not lift his hand that he had been prostrate a long time.

The room he lay in was strange to him. It had a neatness and cleanliness that spoke of a woman's care. It had two small windows, one of which was open. Sunshine flooded in, and the twitter of swallows and hum of bees filled the air outside. Lane could scarcely believe his senses. A warm fragrance floated in. Spring! What struck Lane then most singularly was the fact of the silence. There were no city sounds. This was not the Iden home. Presently he heard soft footfalls downstairs, and a low voice, as of some one humming a tune. What then had happened?

As if in answer to his query there came from below a sound of heavy footfalls on a porch, the opening and closing of a door, a man's cheery voice, and then steps on the stairs. The door opened and Doctor Bronson entered.

"Hello, Doc," said Lane, in a very faint voice.

"Well, you son of a gun!" ejaculated the doctor, in delight. Then he called down the stairs. "Mel, come up here quick."

Then came a low cry and a flying patter of light feet. Mel ran past the doctor into the room. To Lane she seemed to have grown along with the enchantments his old memories had invoked. With parted lips, eager-eyed, she flashed a look from Lane to Doctor Bronson and back again. Then she fell upon her knees by the bed.

"Do you know me?" she asked, her voice tremulous.

"Sure. You're the wife—of a poor sick soldier—Daren Lane."

"Oh, Doctor, he has come to," cried Mel, in rapture.

"Fine. I've been expecting it every day," said Doctor Bronson, rubbing his hands. "Now, Daren, you can listen all you want. But don't try to talk. You've really been improving ever since we got you out here to the country. For a while I was worried about your mind. Lately, though, you showed signs of rationality. And now all's O.K. In a few days we'll have you sitting up."

Doctor Bronson's prophecy was more than fulfilled. From the hour of Lane's return to consciousness, he made rapid improvement. Most of the time he slept and, upon awakening, he seemed to feel stronger. Lane had been ill often during the last eighteen months, but after this illness there was a difference, inasmuch as he began to make surprising strides toward recovery. Doctor Bronson was nonplussed, and elated. Mel seemed mute in her gratitude. Lane could have told them the reason for his improvement, but it was a secret he hid in his heart.

In less than a week he was up, walking round his little room, peering out of the windows.

Mel had told Lane the circumstances attending his illness. It had been late in February when she and her father had called for him at his lodgings. He had collapsed in the cab. They took him to the Iden home where he was severely ill during March. In April he began to improve, although he did not come to his senses. One day Mr. Iden brought Jacob Lane, an uncle of Lane's, to see him. Lane's uncle had been at odds with the family for many years. There had been a time when he had cared much for his nephew Daren. The visit had evidently revived the old man's affection, for the result was that Jacob Lane offered Daren the use of a cottage and several acres of land on Sycamore River, just out of town. Joshua Iden had seen to the overhauling of the cottage; and as soon as the weather got warm, Doctor Bronson had consented to Lane's removal to the country. And in a few days after his arrival at the cottage, Lane recovered consciousness.

"Well, this beats me," said Lane, for the hundredth time. "Uncle Jake letting us have this farm. I thought he hated us all."

"Daren, it was your going to war—and coming back—that you were ill and fell to so sad a plight. I think if your uncle had known, he'd have helped you."

"Mel, I couldn't ask anybody for help," said Lane. "Don't you understand that?"

"You were a stubborn fellow," mused Mel.

"Me? Never. I'm the meekest of mortals.... Mel, I know every rock along the river here. This is just above where at flood time the Sycamore cuts across that rocky flat below, and makes a bad rapid. There's a creek above and a big woods. I used to fish and hunt there a good deal."

Two weeks passed by and Daren felt himself slowly but surely getting stronger. Every morning when he came down to breakfast he felt a little better, had a little more color in his pale cheeks. At first he could not eat, but as the days went by he regained an appetite which, to Mel's delight, manifestly grew stronger. No woman could have been brighter and merrier. She laughed at the expression on his face when he saw her hands red from hot dish-water, and she would not allow him to help her. The boast she had made to him of her housekeeping abilities had not been an idle one. She prepared the meals and kept the cottage tidy, and went about other duties in a manner that showed she was thoroughly conversant with them.

The way in which she had absolutely put aside the past, her witty sallies and her innocent humor, her habit of singing while at work, the depth of her earnest conversation; in all, the sweet wholesome strength and beauty of her nature had a remarkable effect on Lane. He began to live again. It was simply impossible to be morbid in her presence. While he was with her he escaped from himself.

The day came when he felt strong enough to take a walk. He labored up the hillside toward a wood. Thereafter he went every day and walked farther every time.

With his returning strength there crept into his mind the dawning of a hope that he might get well. At first he denied it, denied even the conviction that he wished to live. But not long. The hope grew, and soon he found himself deliberately trying to build up his health. Every day he put a greater test upon himself, and as summer drew on he felt his strength gradually increasing. Against Doctor Bronson's advice, he got an axe and set to work on the wood pile, very cautiously at first.

Every day he wielded the axe until from sheer exhaustion he could not lift it. Then he would sit on a log and pant and scorn his weakness. What a poor man it was who could not chop wood for ten minutes without getting out of breath! This pile of logs became to him a serious and meaning obstacle. Every morning he went at it doggedly. His back grew lame, his arms sore, his hands raw and blistered. But he did not give up.

Mel seemed happy to see him so occupied, and was loath to call him even when it was necessary. After lunch it was his habit to walk in the woods. Unmindful of weather, every day he climbed the hill, plunged into the woods, and tramped until late in the afternoon. Returning, he usually slept until Mel called him to dinner. Afterward they spent the evening in the little library. The past seemed buried. Lane's curiosity as to family and friends had not reawakened.

Mel possessed a rich contralto voice which had been carefully cultivated. Every evening in the twilight, with only the flickering of the wood fire in the room, she would sit at the piano and sing. Lane would close his eyes and let the mellow voice charm his every sense. It called up his highest feelings; it lingered in his soul, thrilled along his heart and played on the chords of love and hope. It dispelled the heavy gloom that so often pressed down upon him; it vanquished the depression that was the forerunner of his old terrible black mood.

It came about that Lane spent most of his time outdoors, in the fields, along the river, on the wooded hills. The morbid brooding lost its hold on his mind, and in its place came memories, dreams, imaginations. He walked those hills with phantoms of the past and phantoms of his fancy.

The birds sang, the leaves fluttered, the wind rustled through the branches. White clouds sailed across the blue sky, a crow cawed from a hilltop, a hawk screeched from above, the roar of the river rapids came faintly upward. And Lane saw eyes gazing dreamily downward, thoughtful at a word, looking into life, trying to pierce the veil. It was all so beautiful—so terrible.

The peeping of frogs roused in Lane sensations thrilling and strange. The quick sharp notes were suggestive of cool nights, of flooded streams and marshy places. How often Lane wandered in the dusk along the shore to listen to this chorus!

At that hour twilight stole down; the dark hills rose to the pale blue sky; there was a fair star and a wisp of purple cloud; and the shadowy waters gleamed. Breaking into the trill of the frogs came the song of a lonely whippoorwill.

Lane felt a better spirit resurging. He felt the silence, the beauty, the mystery, the eternal that was there. All that was small and frail was passing from him. There came a regurgitation of physical strength—a change of blood.

The following morning while Lane was laboring over his wood pile, he thought he heard voices in the front yard, and presently Mel came around the walk accompanied by Doctor Wallace and Doctor Bronson.

"Well, Lane, glad to see you," said Doctor Bronson, in his hearty tones. "Doctor Wallace and I are on our way to the Grange and thought we'd stop off a minute."

"How are you, Mr. Lane? I see you're taking work seriously," put in Doctor Wallace, in his kindly way.

"Oh, I'm coming round all right," replied Lane.

He stood there with his shirt sleeves rolled up, his face bronzed a little and now warm and moist from the exercise, with something proven about him, with a suggestion of a new force which made him different.

There was an unmistakable kindliness in the regard of both men and a scarcely veiled fear Lane was quick to read. Both men were afraid they would not find him as they had hoped to.

"Mel, you've chosen a charming location for a home," observed Doctor Wallace.

When Mel was showing her old teacher and friend the garden and flowerbeds the practical Doctor Bronson asked Lane: "Did you chop all that wood?"

The doctor pointed to three long piles of wood, composed of short pieces regularly stacked one upon another.

"I did."

"How long did it take you?"

"I've been weeks at it. That's a long time, but you know, Doctor, I was in pretty poor condition. I had to go slow."

"Well, you've done wonders. I want to tell you that. I hardly knew you. You're still thin, but you're gaining. I won't say now what I think. Be careful of sudden or violent exertion. That's all. You've done more than doctors can do."



CHAPTER XXII

"Mel, come here," called Lane from the back porch, "who the deuce are those people coming down the hill?"

Mel shaded her eyes from the glare of the bright morning sun. "The lady is Miss Hill, my old schoolteacher. I'd know her as far as I could see her. Look how she carries her left arm. This is Saturday, for she has neither a lunch basket nor a prayer book in that outstretched hand. If you see Miss Hill without either you can be certain it's Saturday. As to the gentleman—Daren, can it possibly be Colonel Pepper?"

"That's the Colonel, sure as you're alive," declared Lane, with alacrity. "They must be coming here. Where else could they be making for? But Mel, for them to be together! Why, the Colonel's an old sport, and she—Mel—you know Miss Hill!"

Whereupon Mel acquainted Daren with the circumstances of a romance between Miss Hill and the gallant Colonel.

"Well—of all things!" gasped Lane, and straightway became speechless.

"You're right, Daren; they are coming in. Isn't that nice of them? Now, don't you dare show I told you anything. Miss Hill is so easily embarrassed. She's the most sensitive woman I ever knew."

Lane recovered in time to go through the cottage to the front porch and to hear Miss Hill greet Mel affectionately, and announce with the tone of a society woman that she had encountered Colonel Pepper on the way and had brought him along. Lane had met the little schoolteacher, but did not remember her as she appeared now, for she was no longer plain, and there was life and color in her face. And as for embarrassment, not a trace of it was evident in her bearing. According to Mel, the mere sight of man, much less of one of such repute as Colonel Pepper, would once have been sufficient to reduce Miss Hill to a trembling shadow.

But the Colonel! None of his courage manifested an appearance now. To Lane's hearty welcome he mumbled some incoherent reply and mopped his moist red face. He was wonderfully and gorgeously arrayed in a new suit of light check, patent leather shoes, a tie almost as bright as his complexion, and he had a carnation in his buttonhole. This last proof of the Colonel's mental condition was such an overwhelming shock to Lane that all he could do for a moment was stare. The Colonel saw the stare and it rendered him helpless.

Miss Hill came to the rescue with pleasant chat and most interesting news to the exiles. She had intended coming out to the cottage for ever so long, but the weather and one thing or another falling on a Saturday, had prevented until to-day. How pretty the little home! Did not the Colonel agree with her that it was so sweet, so cosy, and picturesquely situated? Did they have chickens? What pleasure to have chickens, and flowers, too! Of course they had heard about Mr. Harry White and the widow, about the dissension in Doctor Wallace's church. And Margaret Maynard was far from well, and Helen Wrapp had gone back home to her mother, and Bessy Bell had grown into a tall ravishingly beautiful girl and had distracted her mother by refusing a millionaire, and seemed very much in love with young Dalrymple.

"And I've the worst class of girls I ever had," went on Miss Hill. "The one I had last year was a class of angels compared to what I have now. I reproved one girl whose mother wrote me that as long as Middleville had preachers like Doctor Wallace and teachers like myself there wasn't much chance of a girl being good. So I'm going to give up teaching."

The little schoolmistress straightened up in her chair and looked severe. Colonel Pepper shifted uneasily, bent his glance for the hundredth time on his shiny shoes and once more had recourse to his huge handkerchief and heated brow.

"Well, Colonel, it seems good to see you once more," put in Lane. "Tell me about yourself. How do you pass the time?"

"Same old story, Daren, same old way, a game of billiards now and then, and a little game of cards. But I'm more lonely than I used to be."

"Why, you never were lonely!" exclaimed Lane.

"Oh, yes indeed I was, always," protested the Colonel.

"A little game of cards," mused Lane. "How well I remember! You used to have some pretty big games, too."

"Er—yes—you see—once in a while, very seldom, just for fun," he replied.

"How about your old weakness? Hope you've conquered that," went on Lane, mercilessly.

The Colonel was thrown into utter confusion. And when Miss Hill turned terrible eyes upon him, poor Pepper looked as if he wanted to sink through the porch.

Lane took pity on him and carried him off to the garden and the river bank, where he became himself again.

They talked for a while, but neither mentioned the subject that had once drawn them together. For both of them a different life had begun.

A little while afterward Mel and Lane watched the bright figure and the slight dark one go up the hillside cityward.

"What do you know about that!" ejaculated Lane for the tenth time.

"Hush!" said Mel, and she touched his lips with a soft exquisite gesture.

At three o'clock one June afternoon Mel and Daren were lounging on a mossy bank that lined the shady side of a clear rapid-running brook. A canoe was pulled up on the grass below them. With an expression of utter content, Lane was leaning over the brook absorbed in the contemplation of a piece of thread which was tied to a crooked stick he held in his hand. He had gone back to his boyhood days. Just then the greatest happiness on earth was the outwitting of bright-sided minnows and golden flecked sunfish. Mel sat nearby with her lap full of flowers which she had gathered in the long grass and was now arranging. She was dressed in blue; a sunbonnet slipped back from her head; her glossy hair waved in the breeze. She looked as fresh as a violet.

"Well, Daren, we have spent four delightful, happy hours. How time flies! But it's growing late and we must go," said Mel.

"Wait a minute or two," replied Lane. "I'll catch this fellow. See him bite! He's cunning. He's taken my bait time and again, but I'll get him. There! See him run with the line. It's a big sunfish!"

"How do you know? You haven't seen him."

"I can tell by the way he bites. Ha! I've got him now," cried Lane, giving a quick jerk. There was a splash and he pulled out a squirming eel.

"Ugh! The nasty thing!" cried Mel, jumping up. Lane had flung the eel back on the bank and it just missed falling into Mel's lap. She screamed, and then when safely out of the way she laughed at the disgust in his face.

"So it was a big sunfish? My! What a disillusion! So much for a man's boastful knowledge."

"Well, if it isn't a slimy old eel. There! be off with you; go back into the water," said Lane, as he shook the eel free from the hook.

"Come, we must be starting."

He pushed the canoe into the brook, helped Mel to a seat in the bow and shoved off. In some places the stream was only a few feet wide, but there was enough room and water for the light craft and it went skimming along. The brook turned through the woods and twisted through the meadows, sometimes lying cool and dark in the shade and again shining in the sunlight. Often Lane would have to duck his head to get under the alders and willows. Here in an overshadowed bend of the stream a heron rose lumbering from his weedy retreat and winged his slow flight away out of sight; a water wagtail, that cunning sentinel of the brooks, gave a startled tweet! tweet! and went flitting like a gray streak of light round the bend.

"Daren, please don't be so energetic," said Mel, nervously.

"I'm strong as a horse now. I'm—hello! What's that?"

"I didn't hear anything."

"I imagined I heard a laugh or shout."

The stream was widening now as it neared its mouth. Lane was sending the canoe along swiftly with vigorous strokes. It passed under a water-gate, round a quick turn in the stream, where a bridge spanned it, and before Lane had a suspicion of anything unusual he was right upon a merry picnic party. There were young men and girls resting on the banks and several sitting on the bridge. Automobiles were parked back on the bank.

Lane swore under his breath. He recognized Margaret, Dick Swann and several other old-time acquaintances and friends of Mel's.

"Who is it?" asked Mel. Her back was turned. She did not look round, though she heard voices.

"It doesn't matter," said Lane, calmly.

He would have given the world to spare Mel the ordeal before her, but that was impossible. He put more power into his stroke and the canoe shot ahead.

It passed under the bridge, not twenty feet from Margaret Swann. There was a strange, eager, wondering look in Margaret's clear eyes as she recognized Mel. Then she seemed to be swallowed up by the green willows.

"That was damned annoying," muttered Lane to himself. He could have met them all face to face without being affected, but he realized how painful this meeting must be to Mel. These were Mel's old friends. He had caught Margaret's glance. Old memories came surging back. His gaze returned to Mel. Her face was grave and sad; her eyes had darkened, and there was a shadow in them. His glance sought the green-lined channel ahead. The canoe cut the placid water, turned the last bend, and glided into the swift river. Soon Lane saw the little cottage shining white in the light of the setting sun.

One afternoon, as Lane was returning from the woods, he met a car coming out of the grassy road that led down to his cottage. As he was about to step aside, a gay voice hailed him. He waited. The car came on. It contained Holt Dalrymple and Bessy Bell.

"Say, don't you dodge us," called Holt.

"Daren Lane!" screamed Bessy.

Then the car halted, and with two strides Lane found himself face to face with the young friends he had not seen for months. Holt appeared a man now. And Bessy—no longer with bobbed hair—older, taller, changed incalculably, struck him as having fulfilled her girlish promise of character and beauty. "Well, it's good to see you youngsters", said Lane, as he shook hands with them.

Holt seemed trying to hide emotion. But Bessy, after that first scream, sat staring at Lane with a growing comprehending light in her purple eyes.

Suddenly she burst out. "Daren—you're well!... Oh, how glad I am! Holt, just look at him."

"I'm looking, Bess. And if he's really Daren Lane, I'll eat him," responded Holt.

"This is all I needed to make to-day the happiest day of my life," said Bessy, with serious sweetness.

"This? Do you mean meeting me? I'm greatly flattered, Bessy," said Lane, with a smile.

Then both a blush and a glow made her radiant.

"Daren, I'm sixteen to-day. Holt and I are—we're engaged I told mother, and expected a row. She was really pleased.... And then seeing you well again. Why, Daren, you've actually got color. Then Holt has been given a splendid business opportunity.... And—Oh! it's all too good to be true."

"Well, of all things!" cried Lane, when he had a chance to speak. "You two engaged! I—I could never tell you how glad I am." Lane felt that he could have hugged them both. "I congratulate you with all my heart. Now Holt—Bessy, make a go of it. You're the luckiest kids in the world."

"Daren, we've both had our fling and we've both been hurt," said Bessy, seriously. "And you bet we know how lucky we are—and what we owe Daren Lane for our happiness to-day."

"Bessy, that means a great deal to me," replied Lane, earnestly. "I know you'll be happy. You have everything to live for. Just be true to yourself."

So the moment of feeling passed.

"We went down to your place," said Holt, "and stayed a while waiting for you."

"Daren, I think Mel is lovely. May I not come often to see you both?" added Bessy.

"You know how pleased we'll be.... Bessy, do you ever see my sister Lorna?" asked Lane, hesitantly.

"Yes, I see her now and then. Only the other day I met her in a store. Daren, she's getting some sense. She has a better position now. And she said she was not going with any fellow but Harry."

"And my mother?" Lane went on.

"She is quite well, Lorna said. And they are getting along well now. Lorna hinted that a relative—an uncle, I think, was helping them."

Lane was silent a moment, too stirred to trust his voice. Presently he said: "Bessy, your birthday has brought happiness to some one besides yourself."

He bade them good-bye and strode on down the hill toward the cottage. How strangely meetings changed the future! Holt's pride of possession in Bessy brought poignantly back to Lane his own hidden love for Mel. And Bessy's rapture of amaze at his improvement in health put Lane face to face with a possibility he had dreamed of but had never believed in—that he might live.

That night was for Lane a sleepless one. He seemed to have traveled in a dreamy circle, and was now returning to memories and pangs from which he had long been free.

Next morning, without any hint to Mel of his intentions, he left the cottage and made his way into town. Almost he felt as he had upon his return from France. He dropped in to see his mother and was happy to find her condition of mind and health improved. She was overjoyed to see Lane. Her surprise was pitiful. She told him she was sure that he had recovered.

It was this matter of his physical condition that had brought Lane into Middleville. For many months he had resigned himself to death. And now he could not deny even his morbid fancy that he felt stronger than at any time since he left France. He had worked hard to try to get well, but he had never, in his heart, believed that possible.

Lane called upon Doctor Bronson and asked to be thoroughly examined. The doctor manifestly found the examination a task of mounting gratification. At length he concluded.

"Daren, I told you over a year ago I didn't know of anything that could save your life," he said. "I didn't. But something has saved your life. You are thirty pounds heavier and gaining fast. That hole in your back is healed. Your lungs are nearly normal. You have only to be careful of a very violent physical strain. That weak place in your back seems gone.... You're going to live, my boy.... There has been some magic at work. I'm very happy about it. How little doctors know!"

Dazed and stunned by this intelligence, Lane left the doctor's residence and turned through town on his way homeward. As he plodded on, he began to realize the marvelous truth. What would Blair say? He hurried to a telephone exchange to acquaint his friend with the strange thing that had happened. But Blair had been taken to a sanitarium in the mountains. Lane hurried out of town into the country, down the river road, to the cottage, there to burst in upon Mel.

"Daren!" she cried, in alarm. "What's happened?"

She rose unsteadily, her eyes dilating.

"Doctor Bronson said—I was—well," panted Lane.

"Oh!... Daren, is that it?" she replied, with a wonderful light coming to her face. "I've known that for weeks."

"After all—I'm not going—to die!... My God!"

Lane rushed out and strode along the river, and followed the creek into the woods. Once hidden in the leafy recesses he abandoned himself to a frenzy of rapture. What he had given up had come back to him. Life! And he lay on his back with his senses magnified to an intense degree.

The day was late in June, and a rich, thick amber light floated through the glades of the forest. Majestic white clouds sailed in the deep blue sky. The sun shone hot down into the glades. Under the pines and maples there was a cool sweet shade. Wild flowers bloomed. A fragrance of the woods came on the gentle breeze. The leaves rustled. The melancholy song of a hermit thrush pierced the stillness. A crow cawed from a high oak. The murmur of shallow water running over rocks came faintly to Lane's ears.

Lane surrendered utterly to the sheer primitive exultation of life. The supreme ecstasy of that hour could never have been experienced but for the long hopeless months which had preceded it. For a long time he lay there in a transport of the senses, without thinking. As soon as thought regained dominance over his feelings there came a subtle change in his reaction to this situation.

He had forgotten much. He had lived in a dream. He had unconsciously grown well. He had been strangely, unbelievably happy. Why? Mel Iden had nursed him, loved him, inspired him back to health. Her very presence near him, even unseen, had been a profound happiness. He made the astonishing discovery that for months he had thought of little else besides his wife. He had lived a lonely life, in his room, and in the open, but all of it had been dominated by his dreams and fancies and emotions about her. He had roused from his last illness with the past apparently dead. There was no future. So he lived in the moment, the hour. While he lay awake in the silence of night, or toiled over his wood pile, or wandered by the brook under the trees, his dreamy thoughts centered about her. And now the truth burst upon him. His love for her had been stronger than his ruined health and blasted life, stronger than misfortune, stronger than death. It had made him well. He had not now to face death, but life. And the revelation brought on shuddering dread.

Lane lingered in the woods until late afternoon. Then he felt forced to return to the cottage. The look of the whole world seemed changed. All was actual, vivid, striking. Mel's loveliness burst upon him as new and strange and terrible as the fact of his recovery. He had hidden his secret from her. He had been like a brother, kind, thoughtful, gay at times, always helpful. But he had remained aloof. He had basked in the sunshine of her presence, dreamily reveling in the consciousness of what she was to him. That hour had passed forever.

He saw her now as his wife, a girl still, one who had been cruelly wronged by life, who had turned her back upon the past and who lived for him alone. She had beauty and brains, a wonderful voice, and personality that might have fitted her for any career or station in life. She thought only of him. She had found content in ministering to him. She was noble and good.

In the light of these truths coming to him, Lane took stock of his love for Mel. It had come to be too mighty a thing to understand in a moment. He lived with it in the darkness of midnight and in the loneliness of the hills. He had never loved Helen. Always he had loved Mel Iden—all his life. Clear as a crystal he saw the truth. The war with its ruin for both of them had only augmented the powers to love. Lane's year of agony in Middleville had been the mere cradling of a mounting and passionate love. He must face it now, no longer in dreamy lulled unconsciousness, but in all its insidious and complex meaning. The spiritual side of it had not changed. This girl with the bloom of woman's loveliness upon her, with her grace and sweetness and fire, with the love that comes only once in life, belonged to him, was his wife. She did not try to hide anything. She was unconscious of appeal. Her wistfulness came from her lonely soul.

The longer Lane dwelt on this matter of his love for Mel the deeper he found it, the more inexplicable and alluring. And when at last it stood out appallingly, master of him, so beautiful and strange and bitter, he realized that between him and Mel was an insurmountable and indestructible barrier.

Then came storm and strife of soul. Night and day the conflict went on. Outwardly he did not show much sign of his trouble, though he often caught Mel's dark eyes upon him, sadly conjecturing. He worked in the garden; he fished the creek, and rowed miles on the river; he wandered in the woods. And the only change that seemed to rise out of his tumult was increasing love for this girl with whom his fate had been linked.

So once more Lane became a sufferer, burdened by pangs, a wanderer along the naked and lonely shore of grief. His passion and his ideal were at odds. Unless he changed his nature, his reverence for womanhood, he could never realize the happiness that might become his. All that he had sacrificed had indeed been in vain. But he had been true to himself. His pity for Mel was supreme. It was only by the most desperate self-control that he could resist taking her in his arms, confessing his love, swearing with lying lips he had forgotten the wrong done her and asking her to face the future as his loving wife. The thought was maddening. It needed no pity for Mel to strengthen it. He needed love. He needed to fulfill his life.

But Lane did not yield, though he knew that if he continued to live with Mel, in time the sweetness and enchantment of her would be too great for him. This he confessed.

More and more he had to fight his jealousy and the treacherous imagination that would create for him scenes of torment. He cursed himself as base and ignoble. Yet the truth was always there. If Mel had only loved the father of her child—if she had only loved blindly and passionately as a woman—it would have been different. But her sacrifice had not been one of love. It had been one of war. It had the nobility of woman's sacrifice to the race. But as an individual she had perished.



CHAPTER XXIII

Summer waned. The long hot days dragged by. The fading rushes along the river drooped wearily over their dry beds. The yellowing leaves of the trees hung dejected; they were mute petitioners for cool breezes and rain. The grasshoppers chirped monotonously, the locusts screeched shrilly, both being products of the long hot summer, and survivors of the heat, inclined to voice their exultation far into the fall season.

September yielded them full sway, and burned away day by day, week by week, dusty and scorching, without even a promise of rain. October, however, dawned, misty and dark; the clouds crept up reluctantly at first and then, as if to make amends for neglect, trooped black and threatening toward the zenith. Storm followed storm, and at evening, after the violent crashing thunder and vivid lightning and driving torrents of rain had ceased, a soft, steady downpour persisted all night and all the next day.

The drought was broken. A rainy fall season was prophesied. The old danger of the river rising in flood was feared.

After the sear and lifeless color of the fields and forests, what a welcome relief to Daren Lane were the freshened green, the dawning red, the tinging gold! The forest on the hill was soft and warm, and but for the gleams of autumn, would have showed some of the tenderness of spring. Down in the lowlands a sea of color waved under a blue, smoky, melancholy haze.

Lane climbed high that Sunday afternoon and penetrated deep into the woods.

There was rest here. The forest was rich, warm with the scent of pine, of arbor vitae. There was the haunting promise of more brilliant hues. Thoughts swept through Lane's mind. The great striving world was out of sight. Here in the gold-flecked shade, under the murmuring pines and pattering poplars, there was a world full of joy, wise in its teaching, significant of the glory that was fading but which would come again.

Lane loved the low hills, the deep, colorful woods in autumn. There he lost himself. He learned. Silence and solitude taught him. From there he had vision of the horde of men righting down the false impossible trails of the world. He felt the sweetness, the frailty, the dependence, the glory and the doom of women battling with life. He realized the hopeless traits of human nature. Like dead scales his egotism dropped from him. He divined the weaving of chances, the unknown and unnamed, the pondering fates in store. The dominance of pain over all—the wraith of the past—the importunity of a future never to be gained—the insistence of nature, ever-pressing closer its ruthless claims—all these which became intelligible to Lane, could not keep life from looming sweet, hopeful, wonderful, worthy man's best fight.

And sometimes the old haunting voices whispered to him out of the river shadows—deeper, different, strangely more unintelligible than ever before, calling more to his soul.

Next morning Lane got up at the usual hour and went outdoors, but returned almost immediately.

"The river is rising fast. Listen. Hear that roar. There's a regular old Niagara just below."

"I imagined that roar was the wind."

"The water has come up three feet since daylight. I guess I'll go down now and pull in some driftwood."

"Oh, Daren! Don't be so adventurous. When the river is high there's a dangerous rapid below."

"You're right about that. But I won't take any risks. I can easily manage the boat, and I'll be careful."

The following three days it rained incessantly. Outside, on the gravel walks, there was a ceaseless drip, drip, drip.

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